Renee Windham, 9, tried everything to find the right letters yesterday, twisting on the stage like a little dynamo, squinting at the ceiling as if the proper spelling for "veterinary" were somewhere up in the lights.

"Veterinary. V-e-t-," began Renee, a third grader at the Nichols Avenue school in Southeast. "Could you repeat the word please?"

A judge complied, but the dreaded wrong answer bell soon signaled a fourth place finish and her elimination from the finals of the D.C. schools' first city-wide spelling contest.

Twelve finalists, ranging from second graders to eighth graders unwilling to lose to children nearly half their age, had gathered at 9:15 a.m. at Fletcher-Johnson Elementary School in Southeast for the spelling bee.

They were the best of 6,000 students who had begun the competition March 14 at their respective schools.

The audience was full of parents and teachers, their faces and mouths contorted in barely concealed hints at consonants and vowels. Others just quietly agonized their way through it, mutilating handkerchiefs as more and more children were eliminated by 92 words like vicissitude, voracious, and tonsillitis.

"I'm just as nervous as she is," said Dennis Antoine, who greeted his disappointed 8-year-old daughter, Monique, with a kiss and a hug after she was eliminated fairly early in the competition on her seventh word: "detriment."

The children had been competing against students near their own age in the initial stages of the competition, but they were all thrown together in the finals.

At 10:30 a.m., John Krattenmaker, a fifth grader from Lafayette Elementary in Northwest, and Patrice Commodore, a seventh grader at Woodson Junior High School in Northeast, squared off as the only survivors. If either misspelled a word, the other had to spell it and one more word correctly to win.

Patrice couldn't spell "bullion," but neither could John. Then John couldn't spell "staccato," but neither could Patrice. Both failed again with "vicissitude." Then Patrice misspelled "xylophone." John got it right and then was asked to spell "complaisant."

John studiously straightened his horn-rimmed glasses, locked his fingers in his pants pockets and spelled "complacent" correctly, a word with the same sound and meaning. He was declared the winner after a few nervous moments when the judges huddled to sort the whole thing out.

Douglas Horst, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Deal Junior High in Northwest, finished third.

"He got at least three words right I didn't know how to spell," beamed Tom Krattenmaker, John's father and a law professor at Georgetown University. His mother Bevra was "drained, exhausted" and close to tears.

John, who turns 11 today, said, "I'm glad I did it. I love it," and won $200 and a trophy for his efforts. Patrice won $100 and a trophy and Douglas received $50 and a trophy.